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For Transplant House Families, Dinner Just Got a Whole Lot Better!


For the past four years, Julia Lavenberg, PhD, RN, has gone to the Clyde Barker Penn Transplant House at 40th and Walnut almost every Thursday evening to provide a little “taste” of home with her homemade baked goods for the pre- and post-transplant patients and their families who stay there. The guests love the smells emanating from the Transplant House kitchen, which is no surprise. Research shows that the part of the brain that controls emotions is connected directly to a person’s olfactory gland; smells can definitely affect mood or bring up certain memories. One guest told her that after spending the entire day at HUP, with so many tests and doctors, coming back to the house with smells of cookies “felt so warm.” Another said the aroma “makes me feel someone cares.”

But these good aromas do more than make us feel good. “Smell also affects the part of the brain that deals with stress,” said Lavenberg, who is a research analyst at Penn’s Center for Evidence Based Practice. “So it reduces stress as well, for the person doing the baking and for the recipient.”

But Lavenberg wanted to do more for the Transplant House guests, to expand the “menu.” She reached out to Walnut Hill College (formerly The Restaurant School) in West Philadelphia with an idea, after noting on the school’s website that they wanted to involve student leaders in a community program. An hour after receiving Lavenberg’s email, Josh Seery, the College’s associate dean of Teaching and Learning, and the Institute’s associate director, replied, “Yes!” The college wanted to get its students out in the community and make it a learning experience. Lavenberg’s idea would offer both.

Now, thanks to the partnership with Walnut Hill College and a Penn Medicine CAREs grant, Lavenberg has kicked those efforts into high gear.  Each month since December, students – all part of the college’s Student Leadership Development Institute – have volunteered their time and expertise to create soup, bread and dessert, all (of course) from scratch, for guests at the Transplant House. Lavenberg said the students cook at the House but must first create a menu that feeds 30 (enough for plenty of leftovers) and stays within an allotted monthly budget. Although the students choose what they’ll prepare, the emphasis is on comfort foods. “It’s what the guests want.”

For the first meal, six student leaders prepared Italian wedding soup, three kinds of rolls, and iced lemon cookies. Students cooked the broth for the soup at the School but made the actual soup at the House, to create those welcoming and delicious “smells of cooking.” And because their school is just a few short blocks away, “the students are able to bring with them any special or industrial-sized supplies or equipment they may need.”

Each of the subsequent months’ menus has included three delectable courses … and sometimes lessons. For example, transplant patients and guests were treated to pasta-making lessons taught by the students on their second visit. The lesson’s menu included chicken soup with homemade pasta. As an added, personal touch, the students create a recipe booklet to give guests on each visit, as well.

The meal is set up as a buffet in the House’s dining area so guests can take what – and as much as – they like. “When I bake, people come and then scatter, but with the meals, they sit and talk, even after they’re done eating,” Lavenberg said. “Talking together, just like they do at a home where they feel comfortable.”

Students love interacting with the guests. Two girls even got teary-eyed, “seeing that what they did – that their cooking – could make someone feel better and happier.”

Lavenberg received an email from the school’s dean after the first meal. Driving the students to the school after the meal, he said, “I felt a glow coming off all of them. They were smiling bigger than I have ever seen them before, they were laughing … they were proud.” He went on to say that he also saw a closeness among the students that “wasn’t present before… at least not to the level I witnessed last night.”

The program will be on hiatus during the warm-weather months – when the students are on summer break – but student leaders involved in this year’s program voted unanimously to continue the school’s collaboration with the Transplant House, with one graduating student proclaiming, “This was by far the best community service project I did while in school!” In fact, that student is thinking about forming an ‘alumni club’ whose members would come back to the Transplant House to cook meals. The program currently has funding through November but Lavenberg hopes to find additional funding to continue beyond that point. According to Kirsten King, MBA, manager of Operations & Community Relations at the Transplant House, the collaboration came from “a desire to incorporate our neighbors into the life of the Transplant House, as well as how to further grow the long-standing, volunteer-powered Guest Chef program.”

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